Illini leave Heels feeling Blue
Aug. 29, 2008
Champaign, Ill. - After a season filled with five-set matches in 2007, Illinois doesn't mind an early convincing win in 2008, especially with two ranked opponents on the horizon Saturday. With a fired up student crowd, including members of the U of I basketball team, pushing every point, the Illini opened the season with a 25-21, 25-14, 25-12 victory over highly regarded North Carolina in the opening night of the 25th Annual State Farm Illini Classic.
Illinois provided almost workmanlike effort in dismantling the Tar Heels in just an hour and 26 minutes. At the center of that efficiency was sophomore Laura DeBruler, the NCAA freshman leader in kills a year ago. DeBruler was determined to not only provide the number of kills, but do so by hitting a higher percentage this season. The left side dynamo made just one hitting error in her 29 swings, providing a team-high 14 kills in hitting .448.
"Laura has put in a lot of hard work," said Illinois head coach Don Hardin. "She has really matured in her role. She is smarter, more patient and knows when to go after it when she knows she has it."
The defense was as much of the story as the offense on this night. Using a 6-2 with setters Hillary Haen (17 assists) and Lizzie Bazzetta (15 assists) not only provided three hitters in the front row at all times, but also a pretty formidable right side block. As a result, North Carolina hit just .017 for the night. Freshman Michelle Bartsch, along with both senior Kayani Turner and freshman Nicole Kump, provided a formidable wall against UNC's left side. Offensively, Bartsch was hitting with great precision as well with nine kills and no errors in 18 swings for a .500 percentage. Illinois had seven team blocks, paced by sophomore Abby Nelson, DeBruler and sophomore Johannah Bangert, who had three individual blocks apiece.
Libero Ashley Edinger had 19 digs and DeBruler began the season with a double-double following a 15-dig output.
"I think our defense and patience really frustrated North Carolina," Hardin said. "We kept getting digs and putting the ball back at them."
There was no doubt that the crowd not only made a statement with its numbers, but really connected with the new-look Illinois team.
"We definitely have to credit the student group with a few points tonight," Hardin added. "They were outstanding."
Illinois trailed just one time in the match at 6-5 in set one. Four straight points off Nelson's serve put the Illini in front to stay at 10-6. Although Illinois led the rest of the way, the first set was tight. With the score 22-21, DeBruler's big swing around the block started a three-point rally that culminated in the Illini taking the set.
Illinois jumped to leads of 14-5 and 19-10 in making a statement in set two. The Tar Heels had just six kills while hitting -059 in at that set, but with his opponent having six starters back from last year, Hardin was interested in how the team would respond in set three. DeBruler helped answer that question with two aces as the Illini jumped to a 7-0 lead in the third set, and the crowd sensed imminent victory.
"I think us coming out strong in that third set showed a lot of maturity," he said.
Illinois meets No. 11 Oregon and No. 23 New Mexico State at 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., respectively, Saturday in the round robin format. Oregon won a hard-fought match in four sets in the opener.
"This is the toughest early season schedule I put on a team," Hardin said of the slate, which also includes No. 2 Stanford next weekend. "The reason is because they are ready for that and they will use it the right way to get ready for what matters."